LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — Wendy (not her real name) was 14 when her father sold her into marriage. Her husband was an older man she had never met who paid her family $25 as a lobola, or bride price.
He took the girl away from her village in northern Zambia to a shantytown on the edge of the capital 300 miles away. Now she sits, aged 16, in a loveless marriage in a shack, forced to cook, clean, and have sex with a man she doesn't like but who continually reminds her he "owns" her.
Did she want to get married? "No." Does she want to continue her marriage? "No!" Why did her parents do it? The slender girl shrugs. "They needed the money. It's the way things are done here." Poverty and the low status of women are fuelling the sexual exploitation of girls in Africa, the world's poorest continent.
Paying lobola for children is among the more traditional forms of abusing girls, who are seen as mere commodities to be traded away. But the practice is just a tiny element of the problem, experts say. AIDS, hunger, and wars have weakened family structures and sent thousands, if not millions, of young orphans and desperate girls onto the streets for prostitution as a means to somehow survive.
The myth that having sex with a young girl will cure AIDS is also contributing to demand.
From the refugee camps of Sierra Leone to the city streets of Nairobi and truck routes of Tanzania, children are offering their bodies for as little as a sandwich or shoes. The offenders are employers, foreign peacekeepers, soldiers, and even guardians who encourage girls to earn money by whatever means.
Experts say child sexual exploitation in Africa differs from other parts of the world, where the motivation is primarily money. In Africa, victims are often abused by soldiers in such battlefields as Angola, Rwanda, or Liberia; taken as slaves in Sudan; or forced into sex while working as domestic workers across the continent.
"It's not overt commercialized sexual exploitation as in parts of Asia. Transactions are frequently power- or fear-related rather than monetary," says Martin Mogwanja, UNICEF's deputy director for West and Central Africa.
A notable exception is South Africa, one of Africa's richest countries, where a child sex industry is developing in the tourist ports of Cape Town and Durban. Boys and girls as young as 6 are kidnapped by gangs and forced into prostitution, sometimes catering to foreigners, says Bernadette van Vuuren, advocacy director of the Cape Town-based Resources Aimed at Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect.
Experts say it is impossible to estimate how many thousands, if not millions, of African children are being sexually exploited. But with conflicts in at least half a dozen countries and 5 million AIDS orphans expected in Africa by the year 2000, the number of cases is expected to soar.
An idea of the crisis can be gleaned by studies in individual communities. A YWCA survey in Bo, Sierra Leone's second-largest city, which is overrun by war refugees, showed that 54 of 90 girls surveyed were involved in prostitution. And in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, more than half of 100,000 prostitutes are under 18, according to Save the Children, an international charity.
One of the worst places for the sexual exploitation of minors is Zambia, where one of Africa's highest levels of AIDS and five years of harsh austerity measures that have curtailed free social services have sent armies of girls into the streets.
Among them was Justine Kalandanya, 15, who has been a prostitute for four years, along with her mother and older sister. "It all began when my daddy died, and I had to earn money for school fees," she said, cradling a baby, her third. She joined a rehabilitation center, Tacintha, but now the program is running out of money. Justine has returned to the streets to earn money for food.
Signs of Hope in Africa
In Sierra Leone and Mozambique, both of which are emerging from civil wars, many girls who were used as "comfort women" for soldiers are being given help to reenter society.
A combination of Western-style counseling and traditional healing methods are favored by Boia Efraeme, a psychologist with the Mozambican Association of Public Health. He says "rebirth" rituals vary from sprinkling water on the person to elaborate all-night ceremonies involving the whole village and animal sacrifices.
"Many times the cleansing rituals can help relieve the girl of shame or guilt from being sexually abused. They believe they are cured so they can more easily get on with their lives," he says.
In Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, Roman Catholic priest Michael Hickey runs a program for child war victims that reunites families, pays school fees, and offers counseling. He says that all but one of the original 10 girls brought into the program three years ago have readjusted to normal life.
Social workers in Zambia favor getting children off the streets and teaching them skills. But local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) complain of a lack of resources, free education, and jobs to prevent the children from returning to the streets.
The YWCA in Zambia holds education workshops in shantytowns to discourage exploitation of children by adults. One group known as Tacintha rides through the streets looking for prostitutes and then brings them to its shelter and training center. Fountain of Hope finds sponsors to pay the school fees of street children.
Similar methods are used in the West African nation of Benin, where NGOs are teaching girls income-generating activities so they can stop being maids in homes, where they are often exploited sexually.
In Mauritania, an educational workshop on children's rights by NGOs led to a government order for airport police to ban children from flying to the Middle East to work as domestics, when they are often abused.